“Raise your words, not your voice”
Nora Twomey’s 2017 film The Breadwinner is an animation based on Deborah Ellis’ 2000 novel of the same name. Taking on a war-ravaged Afghanistan, the film unearths the secret world of the women impaired by the system. According to a 2001 report on the Taliban’s war against them, provided by the U. S. Department of State, the Taliban’s policies ensure that women’s “right to freedom of speech, association and assembly, the right to work, the right to education, freedom of movement, and the right to health care” are violated. And though the film strays from graphic violence, its presence is hardly concealed, or disguised as something more palatable. In this Canadian-Irish-Luxembourg co-production, the audience is presented with a reality that begs to be overlooked by those privileged enough to be born elsewhere.
When her handicapped father is arrested and taken away, 11-year-old Parvana (Saara Chaudry) tries to provide for her mother, sister and baby brother. Faced with the devastating truth that the world would rather see them starve than extend a helping hand, Parvana undergoes a change of identity. Inspired by her friend Shauzia (Soma Bhatia), who wanders around in the disguise of a boy named Deliwar, Parvana sheds her hair. In this euphoric act of rebellion, she adopts the name Aatish, which leaves her free to explore a previously forbidden world. Spurred on by her quest to visit her father in prison, Parvana dedicates her dwindling strength and spirit to raise the funds necessary to bribe the guards. Meanwhile, a war erupts, forcing her world to spin off its axis.
The film merges two worlds – one vibrant and lush, presenting stories that lift the spirit, and the other grainy, dragging that same spirit through gravel and dust. One cannot exist without the other, and the bedtime story that unfolds parallel to the main storyline is a sharpened dagger. It slashes away at moments nestled too firmly in reality, and unveils its true purpose only at the end, providing Parvana with the means to overcome the traumatic loss of her older brother.
Parvana’s glorious metamorphosis from a petulant girl to the titular breadwinner is propelled by the horrors she witnesses, most memorably the punishment her mother sustains for wandering the streets without her husband. And yet, the dismay is softened by the play of balmy beige light along stony faces, as well as the rousing melody of the film’s soundtrack, compiled by Mychael and Jeff Danna.
The boiling hues accommodate a world of equally pulsing reflection. As Parvana begins to understand the mechanics of a world, in which she is merely property to be owned, the running yoke of her imagination spills over, saturating an otherwise bleak reality. By achieving this level of intensity, animated tears stir real salt in the audience’s eyes. This grip on our physicality, extended from the TV screen to where we are seated, is tightened by the film’s sublime transitions and pace – letting mysticism drip into the storyline’s meandering stream.
And below its brisk current, The Breadwinner possesses a depth that is quite unexpected. Despite her age, Parvana struggles with the concept of identity, posing questions that break the heart more than any passing act of violence. By assuming the identity of the privileged sex, she sways from fear to relief, from gratitude to despair. After all, there is great tragedy in knowing that eventually her body will start to evolve, betraying the mind and the heart. On numerous occassions, both Parvana and Shauzia confront what it means to live with a foreign identity – feeling alien in familiar surroundings, being unable to touch what can only be seen through foreign eyes.
The Breadwinner is a poignant story with a surprising ability to ensnare the heart. It sneaks between the ribs by presenting the joys and woes of both family life and friendship, as well as the sacrifices both demand of us. By exhibiting a natural acceptance of brutality – the very expectation of it at every turn – and never proving its characters wrong, the film is evocative of Ari Folman’s 2008 Israeli animation Waltz with Bashir, though it departs from as harrowing a depiction of fading humanity as Folman’s work.
All in all, The Breadwinner is a phenomenon to behold. Its elements, meaning the illustrious stories, erupting land mines and whipping boys, are mashed together into an incongruous heap of contradictions, presenting the triumphant desire to not only survive, but to live. And, by quoting the 13th century poet Rumi, the film grapples to preserve the idealism we part with upon adulthood. The moral of The Breadwinner is encapusalted in the final words whispered into the ears of breathless viewers: “Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
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